Is Your Meat Eco-Friendly?
Healthy, Eco-Friendly and Humane are a few of the claims companies are putting on meat and poultry packages. The labels are an effort to persuade you that you're making a better choice. But the labels don't always mean what they say. To clear up some of the confusion, here's the story behind two of those claims.
American Grassfed is the logo of the American Grassfed Association (AGA).
The official position of the AGA is that their logo should be used to define "grass-fed products from ruminants, including cattle, bison, goats and sheep, as those food products from animals that have eaten nothing but their mother's milk and fresh grass or grass-type hay from birth to harvest all their lives. The AGA standards... are primarily based on four precepts: total forage diet, no confinement, no antibiotics and no added hormones."
The reported health advantages of grass-fed versus grain-fed animals is that they're "higher in beta carotene (Vitamin A), conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), and Omega-3 fatty acids, which are important in reducing cholesterol, diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure and other life threatening diseases." They're also supposedly lower in fat, cholesterol and calories.
Preliminary studies back those claims up, but the amounts are small and many people wouldn't pay the premium if that were the only benefit.
There is something that may be worth the extra money. It's the reduction in risk of infection by E. coli. The stomachs of ruminants have multiple compartments and they're designed to eat a high-fiber, low-protein diet.
Unfortunately, most ranchers feed their cows grain, a low-fiber, high protein food. Grain is hard for a cow to digest, and it breaks down the cilia in a cow's intestines. Over time, their digestive pH levels rise, making it an ideal breeding ground for E. coli. Cows on a natural grass-fed diet have significantly lower levels of E. coli.
There's also an environmental benefit. According to a report by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), grazing lands remove and store over 40 tons of carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) per acre. Cultivated soils, such as the farms where grains are raised to feed cattle, only remove and store an average of 26 tons of carbon dioxide per acre. Converting cattle feed farmland to grazing land could be one step to reduce global climate change.
There are downsides.
- Price. Grass-fed animals take longer to mature, so ranchers have to charge more.
- Reliability. The AGA didn't start putting a program in place to certify grass-fed meat operations until 2007 and it won't be fully implemented until sometime in 2008. If you're reading this before the Food Alliance starts AGA certification, you're relying entirely on the honesty of the rancher.
- Finally, keep in mind AGA is for Ruminants only. That is cattle, sheep and eventually goats. It doesn't cover poultry or pork since those animals must consume grains as a part of their diet.
Certified Humane is a program run by Humane Farm Animal Care. Producers that use their logo must follow these general guidelines.
"The Animal Care Standards require that livestock have access to clean and sufficient food and water; that their environment is not dangerous to their health; that they have sufficient protection from weather elements; that they have sufficient space allowance in order for them to move naturally; and other features to ensure the safety, health and comfort of the animal."
There are two beneficiaries of the Certified Humane label. The animals benefit because they're treated better and have a higher quality of life. The environment benefits because Certified Humane prohibits the use of antibiotics and growth hormone...two things that leak into groundwater and can make their way into human water supplies.
If you're concerned about the long-term health of the environment, eliminating antibiotics and growth hormone alone makes Certified Humane worth looking for. The biggest drawback is price. It costs more money to give animals freedom to roam, and frequently, consumers aren't willing or able to pay extra for that.
To ensure compliance, companies allowed to use the Certified Humane label are monitored by organizations like the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and the Humane Society.
Two labels. Two important things to consider the next time you're in the supermarket.
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